“Black Lives in Alaska: A History of African Americans in the Far Northwest”
By Ian C. Hartman and David Reamer; University of Washington Press, 2022; 304 pages; $24.95
“This book,” authors Ian Hartman and David Reamer state in “Black Lives in Alaska,” has “problematized the notion of Alaskan exceptionalism, whereby Alaskans perceive themselves as having charted a history independent of the nation writ large.”
The specific history, as the title indicates, is of race relations on the Last Frontier. The narrative many Alaskans have quietly embraced is that the racial divides that have characterized the United States for centuries have been largely sidestepped by a population that consciously discarded anti-Black prejudices commonly found elsewhere in the country.
For Hartman and Reamer, that’s not quite the case. Hartman, an associate professor and department chair with the History Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and Reamer, an independent historian who regularly contributes to the Anchorage Daily News, instead argue — quite persuasively — that Alaska’s history regarding race relations mostly mirrors the rest of the country, with some details and exceptions unique to the 49th state.
Black people have been in Alaska since before it was purchased from Russia, and they’ve contributed to our shared history ever since. The earliest arrivals were whalers, often escaped slaves who hired on to vessels that departed on voyages lasting years. For a man running from bondage, this meant decent pay upon return, as well as a lengthy absence from the country while slave hunters sought them. Added to this was the somewhat egalitarian nature of the whaling industry, one of the few areas of the 19th century economy where Black workers could advance themselves by merit.
The fact that Black crewmen worked and sometimes captained whaling ships off Alaska’s shores is largely forgotten now. That many Black Americans joined stampeders during the gold rush is also mostly overlooked. And while the accomplishments of Black laborers who built much of the Alcan Highway during World War II is today justly celebrated, the additional deployments of segregated Black military units into Alaska in advance of combat in the Aleutians has also been dropped from accounts of the time. Whether consciously or through oversight, Black Alaskans have been, at best, overlooked in our state’s history, and deliberately ignored at worst. One objective of this book is to provide a corrective.
“Black Lives in Alaska” is an expansion and update of a somewhat different and shorter work that Hartman published in 2020, “Black History in the Last Frontier.” Like that earlier volume, it traces the activities of Black Alaskans from those earliest arrivals on whaling ships up to the present day. And, again like the original book, though perhaps more so, the second half is almost exclusively focused on Anchorage, where most of the state’s Black population lives, and where many of the fiercest civil rights battles have been fought, with this book extending into the post-George Floyd era.
[Book review: ‘Buffalo Soldiers in Alaska’ explores a little known chapter of Black history in Alaska]
The book, in fact, can informally be divided into two halves. In the first, we meet Black men and women who traveled north seeking fortune, much as their white counterparts did. In keeping with the general population, Black stampeders who followed entrepreneurial paths, providing necessities and services instead of staking claims, usually enjoyed the greatest successes and found reasons to stay.
Black Americans continued to trickle into Alaska in the decades leading up to World War II. It was that conflict, and Alaska’s strategic importance to it, that brought a large contingent of Black soldiers into Alaska. Many were from the South and, finding conditions better than at home, stayed after the war’s conclusion.
This leads to the second half of the book, when Alaska’s demographics took a turn for the urban and Anchorage boomed, becoming the state’s economic and population center. Black residents found a city often more welcoming than where they had come from, but only to a matter of degree. Racism still marked their daily existence.
This can be seen in the fact that redlining was the rule for housing. Blacks were pushed into an area called Eastchester, which at the time was outside of city limits. Rentals and home purchases within Anchorage were all but unheard of for Blacks, and in one case, a Black family building a house in a high-end neighborhood had it destroyed by an arsonist. White Anchorage residents did not want Black neighbors, and they made sure to keep it that way.
The authors move through the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s, when there were marches and other events held in support of the cause. Black Alaskans found common cause with Alaska Natives, and alliances were forged. The state’s real civil rights push came in the 1980s, however, when a handful of lawyers, many of them women, fought relentlessly in courts, winning some key victories, but also suffering setbacks.
Much of their impetus sprang from high-profile shootings of Black men by Anchorage police. The authors examine one shooting that initially seemed justified, but compared with similar incidents involving white suspects that didn’t end in gunfire, suddenly appears quite racial. They also quote numerous letters and editorials from the old Anchorage Times that are as incendiary as any Facebook comment. Things haven’t changed much.
Except they have, and in important ways. While racial tensions are still unresolved in Anchorage, the demographic influxes that have made it the most diverse city in America will inevitably bring shifts. Hartman and Reamer note that young people are building a diverse arts scene in the city and challenging our idea of what it means to be Alaskan.
There are many ways of being Alaskan, of course, but what it means to be Black and Alaskan has not been adequately written about thus far. This book, by its nature, can only begin to tell that story. Hopefully those young people Hartman and Reamer honor will look to their elders, record their stories, and explore this history in depth. It’s part of Alaska’s history, and it’s a disservice to all Alaskans that it remains largely untold. “Black Lives in Alaska” is one small step in the right direction. We need more.